33. Koinonia in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

In by Seth Georgson

How is the EHV going to handle the Greek word koinonia in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17?

After considerable discussion, the EHV chose to retain/return to the familiar heritage term “communion,” which was the translation of the King James Version and which has become an important part of our theological vocabulary.

16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communiona of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communionb of the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
          a16 Or joint partaking
          b16 Or joint partaking

 The biggest reason to restore the traditional translation communion is that, on the basis of this passage, the term Communion has been a common English name for the Lord’s Supper for hundreds of years, and we regularly refer to the recipients of the sacrament as communicants.  If the term communion is not used in this passage, the link between the use of the term communion in Scripture and in our worship life is broken.

This use of the term is still standard English usage. A standard dictionary definition of the term communion includes these elements:

  • the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared.
  • the consecrated bread and wine so administered and received.
  • common participation in a mental or emotional experience or in a thing.

Another reason to use the term communion is that this term is embedded in the creeds and hymns of the church in a variety of uses. We regularly confess that we believe in the “communion of saints,” and we sing, “Oh blessed communion, fellowship divine.” The term communion is at home in the worship life of the church.

The translation communion, nevertheless, is not an easy or automatic choice in this verse, because koinonia is a complex term that has a number of shades of meaning and a number of applications.  Common glosses for the term koinonia are communion, association, fellowship, close relationship, sharing, participation, and joint participation.

The creedal term “the communion of saints,” more literally, “the koinonia of the holy,” is itself an ambiguous phrase. It may refer to the fellowship of holy people or to the sharing of holy things. In the translation, the fellowship of holy people, the term is a description of the church of all believers, who are holy through the complete forgiveness they have in Christ. In the second translation, the sharing of holy things, communion refers to joint participation in the means of grace, especially the sacraments, the holy things.

Even in the Lord’s Supper, there are at least three different but related communions. One is the fellowship expressed between all the communicants who participate in the sacrament together. “Because there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The second communion expressed in the sacrament is the fellowship we have with the Triune God for and through the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ. “We are proclaiming what we have seen and heard also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. … If we walk in the light, just as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:3, 7). The third communion in the sacrament is the close relationship (or we may even say, the union) between the bread and the body of Christ and between the wine and the blood of Christ. “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the Lord’s body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:27). The passage we are discussing here, 1 Corinthians 10:16, is also relevant to this third communion. These three communions make Communion a fitting name for the Sacrament.

But before we take a further look at this, let’s see how some other translations have handled this verse.

1 Corinthians 10:16 is a key passage concerning the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

Literal: The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a koinonia of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a koinonia of the body of Christ.KJV     The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

NKJV  The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

EHV     The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion* of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion* of the body of Christ?
*Or joint partaking

Luther  Gemeinschaft des Blutes; GW: sharing the blood; GWN: a communion with the blood

NIV     Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?

ESV     The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

HCSB The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?

CSB     The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?

AB      The cup of blessing of wine at the Lord’s Supper upon which we ask God’s blessing, does it not mean that in drinking it we participate in and share a fellowship (a communion) in the blood of Christ (the Messiah)? The bread which we break, does it not mean that in eating it we participate in and share a fellowship (a communion) in the body of Christ?

MSG   When we drink the cup of blessing, aren’t we taking into ourselves the blood, the very life, of Christ? And isn’t it the same with the loaf of bread we break and eat? Don’t we take into ourselves the body, the very life, of Christ?

LB       When we ask the Lord’s blessing upon our drinking from the cup of wine at the Lord’s Table, this means, doesn’t it, that all who drink it are sharing together the blessings of Christ’s blood? And when we break off pieces of bread from the loaf to eat there together, this shows that we are sharing together in the benefits of his body.

 
Discuss:

  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the translations “communion,” “participation,” “joint participation,” “sharing,” and “fellowship.”
  • Do the terms “participation” and “sharing” tend to focus attention on the actions of the recipients rather than the relationship of the elements?
  • Does “communion” focus attention more on the relationship of the earthly elements with Christ’s body and blood?
  • Does “blessing” focus more clearly on the consecration of the elements than the term “thanksgiving” does?
  • Is there a difference between “sharing in the blood” and “sharing the blood” and between “communion with the blood” and “communion of the blood”?
  • Do some of the translations import extraneous interpretation into the text?

The Living Bible transfers the blessing from the cup and its contents to our act of drinking. It changes “sharing the blood” into “sharing in the blessings of the blood.” The Message interprets “the blood” as a figurative reference to “the life of Christ.”

The Amplified Bible recognizes some of the difficulty of coming up with just one word to express the full meaning, by its translation that collates or blends two (or even three) thoughts: participate in/ and share a fellowship (a communion) in/ the blood of Christ. The translation joint participation also may allude to two communions.

So what are some to the factors that favor the translation communion from among the options available to us?

  • It restores the connection between 1 Corinthians 10:16 and the name Communion, which is an important term in the church’s theological and liturgical heritage.
  • It does not important any denominational interpretation into the text. It was the accepted rendering in all parts of the Protestant church for more than 400 years. It seems to have been introduced by the Geneva Bible, a predecessor of the KJV.
  • It indicates more clearly that the text does not say that our action of partaking of the cup is a koinonia of the blood of Christ, but that the cup is a koinonia of the blood of Christ. It most clearly recognizes the close relationship between the contents of the cup and Christ’s blood. The two parties in the communion of the Lord’s Supper are, first of all, the cup and Christ’s blood, not the action of the communicants and Christ’s blood.
  • Translations like participation introduce three parties into the koinonia: the act of participating, the blood of Christ, and the cup as the means of koinonia. While this is not wrong, it is not the direct meaning of a literal reading of the text.
  • This translation is open to the understanding that this verse alludes to the sacramental union.

The translations participation and communion can both be understood correctly, and both have been understood incorrectly, but communion best points to the simplest meaning of the text and best connects it with the historical language of the church.

Resources for further study:

 David Kuske, “Exegetical Brief: Koinonia in 1 Corinthians 10:16—Participation or Partnership?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Fall 2004, p 284-286.

C. P. Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1871, especially p 635-641.

Some other opinions:

Concerning  the word koinonia, the church father Chrysostum  argues that communion is a stronger term than participation: Why did [Paul in 1 Co 10:16] not say “participation” (metalepsis or metoche)? Because he intended to express something more, and to point out how close the union (henosis) was. We communicate not only by participating and partaking, but also by being united. For as that body is united with Christ, so we are also united with him by this bread” (A Select Library of Nicene and Post –Nicene Fathers, Vol. XII, p 139. Also cited in Krauth, p 635.)

Some argue that communion was originally intended by the Geneva Bible to be a weaker term than participation, and that communication would be a stronger term. But if that was once the case, 400 years of use have strengthened the term communion.

In the Formula of Concord, Article VII in 1 Corinthians 10:16, the Latin text uses the term communicatio but the English text usually renders this communion (Triglotta, p 812-813). The term communication of the body also occurs on Triglotta, p 974-975. On page 990 both communicatio and participatio are used. So the statements, “the cup is a communication of Christ’s blood” or “there is a close relationship of the contents of the cup and Christ’s blood,” are both true, but the church has traditionally expressed this relationship with the term communion.

S. J. Baumgarten: The communion of the cup with the blood of Christ can here be taken in a two-fold mode: 1) The cup stands in communion with the blood of Christ—is a means of offering it and imparting it. 2) The cup is a means of uniting the participants with the blood of Christ—the means whereby they are made participants of it. The second presupposes the first (cited in Krauth, p 640).